Sesame Street's big missed opportunity

Three ways Sesame Workshop could have better handled the debate about the relationship between Bert and Ernie.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

Experts said the organization behind "Sesame Street" should not have denied that the show’s Bert and Ernie characters are gay after former writer Mark Saltzman told the blog Queerty that the two puppets are actually a couple.

Saltzman said the cohabitating duo was based on his relationship with film editor Arnold Glassman. However, Sesame Workshop tweeted on Tuesday afternoon that Bert and Ernie are "best friends" who "do not have a sexual orientation."

A few hours later, Sesame Workshop tweeted that the show "has always stood for inclusion and acceptance."

Activist and Target Cue principal Cathy Renna said she was "disappointed on all levels" to see Sesame Workshop’s response, noting she is also a parent who has watched "a lot" of "Sesame Street."

If Oscar the Grouch can have a girlfriend, and other characters such as Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog can have an obvious sexual orientation, why can’t Bert and Ernie?, she asked.

"Frankly, their being a couple falls in the ‘in other news, water is wet’ category of announcements, and it should be celebrated along with all the other diversity the show has striven to model all these years," said Renna. "LGBTQ kids and children of LGBT families need to see themselves reflected in appropriate ways in children’s programming."

Sesame Workshop, she explained, should be on the vanguard of affirming, not denying, what has been the "unspoken truth" for decades.

"It was the denial that rang false and disingenuous if not downright anti-gay," Renna said.

She added that if she had been tasked with penning Sesame Workshop’s response, she would have mentioned how the organization has always respected the diversity of its viewers -- and everyone who lives on "Sesame Street."

Adam Ritchie, principal of Adam Ritchie Brand Direction, contended that the organization did not owe the world a concrete answer about the status of the muppets’ relationship.

"If asked directly by a credible news source, Sesame Workshop could have released an on-brand statement for the ages, packed in a simple three-word tweet: ‘Use your imagination,’" he said.

Nick Kalm, founder and president of Reputation Partners added that the company didn’t need a blanket denial.

"They could have said something like, ‘As lovable puppet characters, it is only natural that some might want to assign certain human characteristics to Bert and Ernie. While they are just puppets, they show all of us, regardless of our differences, the power of acceptance and tolerance,’" he said.

Of course, it’s not the first time Bert and Ernie have been described as gay. Sesame Workshop had stayed quiet in the past when the topic came up, but this time, but this time the company needed to respond because a former employee made the assertions, experts said.

"A refusal to comment could have been misinterpreted in any number of ways," Kalm said.

A representative for Sesame Workshop declined to comment beyond its earlier statements.

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